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Quirk of history

The “darkest stain” on Vichy France

Marshall Pétain with Hitler in 1940. Roger Viollet/Getty

On July 23, 1945, says Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, Marshal Philippe Pétain went on trial in Paris’s Palais de Justice for surrendering to Hitler and heading the Vichy government in German-occupied France. No other Western nation overrun by the Nazis – “not Norway or Holland, not Denmark or Belgium or Luxembourg” – had signed an armistice, their governments instead going into exile. Yet Pétain remained defiant at the trial, asking in his opening address: “What would have been gained in liberating a France in ruins, a France of cemeteries?” The verdict, when it came, was inevitable: guilty. “The impenitent old marshal eked out his last years imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off western France.”

Yet as Julian Jackson notes in his “magisterial” new book, France on Trial, barely mentioned in the courtroom was perhaps “the darkest stain on Pétain and his people”: the deportation – “by gendarmes, not Nazis” – of 75,000 French Jews towards Hitler’s death camps. This atrocity “laid bare France’s institutionalised antisemitism”. I saw this for myself in 1980, when former members of the French resistance told me of their disdain for one of their old comrades, Baron Philippe de Gunzbourg. What was wrong with de Gunzbourg, I asked a local historian. “Il est juif!” he spat back. “This was the France of the 1940s, the France on trial in the Palais de Justice.”

France on Trial by Julian Jackson is available here.